The picture formed early.
Back in May, the Whale Branch Early College High School football team saw its potential path for the season, if everything went well. The final home game, closing the season with Allendale-Fairfax, would decide the Region 5-A championship.
And the Warriors planned to take it, had to win the program's first region title. They imagined no other scenario.
Whale Branch on Friday climbed within one quarter -- 12 minutes -- of realizing its dream, matching the unbeaten Tigers physically and having delivered the game's only haymaker. But Allendale-Fairfax was rolling out a plan of its own, methodically executing its run-first offense until the Warriors cracked.
The Tigers owned the fourth quarter and ripped away the Region 5-A title, defeating Whale Branch, 14-7, on Friday night in Seabrook.
"This hurts," senior linebacker Trey Nelson said. "Coach has been preaching it to us, 'Last game of the season, you get Allendale at home. If you play right, this will be the region championship.' And we made it, but fell short. It's a learning process."
Allendale-Fairfax completed a 9-0 regular season and earned the region's top seed and 15 coveted playoff points. Whale Branch dropped into a three-way tie and fell to fourth place based on region tiebreaker rules.
Whale Branch has an outisde chance at a home playoff game when brackets are released this morning or could slip to a road game, possibly at Allendale-Fairfax.
Hatcher said this week the Warriors weren't as strong as the Tigers, that their weight program needed to mature before Whale Branch could physically dominate teams. But the Warriors' defense held the Tigers to their lowest output of the season. Its defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage early, forcing Tigers quarterback Solomon McCormick up in the pocket and stuffing the run.
Allendale-Fairfax, ranked No. 2 in Class 1-A in the most recent S.C. media poll, entered averaging 344 yards rushing per game. The Tigers grinded out only 29 yards by halftime. And McCormick misfired on his first six passes.
But by the fourth quarter, the Tigers were finding more room and benefited from Whale Branch turnovers and solid field position. After a short punt to start the fourth quarter, the Tigers needed only five plays -- all runs -- to find the end zone for the first time, a 2-yard Jahnari Devoe score. The two-point conversion gave the Tigers the lead.
"That was the plan coming in," Tigers coach Eddie Ford said, of wearing down the Warriors' defense. "We thought it'd happen a little earlier than when it did. They're a pretty good football team. They're a whole lot stronger than I thought they were, too."
The comeback trumped another big play for Whale Branch's Dee Delaney. The senior fielded a line-drive punt during the first quarter and sprinted to his left sideline, racing 65 yards for a score.
The advantage held until late.
But once the Tigers pushed ahead, their defense, which had allowed fewer than 70 points all season, made it stand. The Tigers were wary of Delaney at receiver, smothering him with zone coverage in obvious passing situations and holding him to one catch for 12 yards in the first half.
With Whale Branch playing from behind, the Warriors fumbled the ball away on the first play of the next possession. After the Tigers tacked on an insurance score, Whale Branch lost a fumble on the ensuing kick.
"We're going to learn from it," Nelson said. "We're not done."
Allendale-Fairfax 14, Whale Branch 7
Allendale-Fairfax 0 0 0 14 -- 14
Whale Branch 7 0 0 0 -- 7
W-- Dee Delaney 65 punt return (Simmons kick) 1:09
A-- Jahnari Devoe 2 run (Brandon Jordan run) 10:13
A-- Brandon Jordan 45 run (kick failed) 2:22
First downs 14 8
Passing yards 88 73
Comp-Att-Int 5-13-1 4-13-1
Rushing 45-175 31-68
Penalties-yards 5-50 8-70
Fumbles-lost 2-1 3-2
Punts-avg 4-24 4-30.5
Rushing: Allendale-Fairfax-- Brandon Jordan 18-99, Jahnari Devoe 16-53, Jamaree Hartzog 6-23, Solomon McCormick 4-(-14). Whale Branch-- Michael Dantzler 20-68, Mark Rivers 7-16, Dee Delaney 1-2, Brandon Morton 3-(-18).
Passing: Allendale-Fairfax-- McCormick 4-12-51-1, Jordan 1-1-37. Whale Branch-- Morton 4-13-73-1.
Receiving: Allendale-Fairfax-- Reshawn Riley 3-43, Denzell Washington 1-37, Jordan 1-8. Whale Branch--Dee Delaney 4-73.